Leveling Up “Leveling Up”

Image from Flickr user RoninKengo
Image from Flickr user RoninKengo

Introduce leveling in games (its a staple how we’ve learned to gauge our progress, etc)

The idea of “Levels” been a part of gaming virtually since they first began. It’s how we know we’re advancing through a game, it’s the idea of progress. Be it levels of difficulty, character levels, or even just the difference between the locations in a game, progress has nearly always been measured in terms of levels. While the term has fallen to the wayside in terms of defining different stages or locations, it is very much alive and well in the realm of character advancement.

Many games that ask the player to develop a character, be it an RPG, free-roaming sandbox, or even FPS’s, employ some variety of leveling system. They have to. If the player doesn’t feel like they’re making progress in the game, then there’s much less reason to keep them invested in the game. However, as necessary as it is, one can’t help but feel like traditional leveling systems are becoming tired, stagnant even. It’s not that the traditional system doesn’t work ( meaning having players fight x amount of enemies to gain x amount of experience, and in turn receive x amount of points in health or something else), but it’s always had a major flaw that almost universally makes such systems feel old. Plainly put, they’re a distraction. Their presence changes the focus of the game from enjoying the gameplay to just getting to that next level. It’s an inherent problem in the system which limits the ability of games meant to be fresh and different, like Final Fantasy XIII was supposed to be, to actually be so.

So if not the traditional, tried-and-true method, then what? The item-empowerment method (where the character grows through gathering better items, a la the Metroid series)? That can work, but carries it’s own risks such as having to contrive new reasons to gather items in successive games (still looking at you Metroid). Along with that, it can risk becoming a bland Easter-egg hunt as the player gets sidetracked into tracking everything down that they can. It’s still fun, but an artificial sort of fun. The item system is on the right track, but it’s inherent flaws still hold games that employ it back to at least some degree. However, there is still another method. One that many of us are familiar with.

BioShock comes to mind as the best example of an alternative leveling system. In BioShock, character advancement takes a back seat to the rest of the game; The system is still present but is integrated in a way that makes it difficult to become a distraction. In BioShock’s case, Jack grows more powerful as ADAM is gained and weapon upgrade stations are found. Both are rare commodities, and are both gained by doing what comes naturally in the game: exploring the dank halls of Rapture as you seek the resources necessary to keep moving forward. The focus is kept on actually playing the game and its story since there’s no opportunity to grind levels, and neither are so important to your advancement that the game turns into an Easter-egg hunt. It’s kept out of the way, but still has enough impact to impress the idea upon you that progress has been made.

It is possible to level-up leveling-up. We have it in many games, not just BioShock. The traditional system is comfortable, yet tired thanks to it’s distracting nature, so hopefully we’ll be seeing more background systems that don’t resort to plain numbers in the future.

What are some unique leveling systems you’ve come across in your time as a gamer? How would they be a better alternative to the plain leveling systems we see in so many games today? We want to know!

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on TrueSelfGaming and commented:
    Read this blog on leveling in gaming for an enlightening experience. I have to agree that often a game becomes about leveling and not about the game itself. Levels are meant to be a reward for the player but a lot of people just grind through it without thought. Must get to the next level so I can do this, this, and this. People have broken down leveling into a science where they know the quickest way to reach the max level.

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    1. Hatm0nster says:

      Thanks for the recommendation….and followed! It really is incredible just how much of a meta-game leveling up in general, just look at Pokemon! When I played it was about just getting a team of favorites up high enough to get through the game, but now…just wow. EVs, natures, hold items, etc.. it’s crazy!

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  2. Vitosal says:

    I’m lucky in the aspect that I’ve never really focused on it, it just seems to be there. I’ve never through of it as a distraction before, although I noticed it in the Arkham Games but again, never found it distracting because every game that I’ve played that uses the system has been fun so didn’t mind grinding in that environment because it never really felt like work…unless that’s point and they’ve already won. Oh my God, what have I become?!

    Trophy count is one example I can think of, where people seem to focus on how many trophies someone has or what their “level” is which really ticks me off.

    I’m one of the lucky ones I guess. 🙂

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    1. duckofindeed says:

      Trophies and achievements can indeed be a distraction. I used to focus on getting them, until I realized how meaningless they are, so I don’t care that much anymore. I only get them if they’re actually fun to get. If not, why bother?

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    2. Hatm0nster says:

      Sounds like you have never let the leveling system become inorganic when you play. It’s hard not to think of the meta-game when it comes to leveling, especially if you’ve played before and know what the milestones are. That happened to me when I played the Kingdom Hearts HD update recently, after a point it became about getting to level XX because Sora got an ability I wanted at that point. It was still fun, but was distracting from everything else I wanted to be doing.

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  3. duckofindeed says:

    I agree, it can be a distraction. I really liked “Super Paper Mario”, but at the same time, I always was so focused on getting to the next level, I kind of rushed through each one just to get to the next. It’s not always like that, though. In some games, I rush through because of this strange desire to get to the next place, and in others, I go slow and enjoy each location. I guess it just depends on the game itself and the player’s personality.

    I can’t think of any unique systems of “leveling up” right now, though I’m sure I’ve seen them.

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    1. Hatm0nster says:

      It is hard to think them on the fly, but one that I like is found in Batman: Arkham Origins. It’s there, but is way in the background. You can’t easily track your progress in it, so there’s really no incentive to grind, so each level up is a nice surprise. Also the rewards you get aren’t game changing or essential, they just give you more options as you play.

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  4. cary says:

    It’s funny, but I haven’t thought of “leveling up” in games in ages, even though it’s a regular occurrence! For some reason, it’s a concept that I only really associate with JRPGs. In a game like Mass Effect, for example, I never thought about what level any one of my Shepards was until I got some sort of acheivement.

    I think Sleeping Dogs has an interesting leveling up system because it’s multifaceted (though, actually, Skyrim is kind of the same way, now that I think about it). Like, depending on the missions you do, you can level up different aspects of your “persona,” things relating to your undercover work, fighting skills, and so on.

    Leveling up in Bioshoick sounds a bit like leveling up in GTA V where the emphasis throughout remains on the story. As you progress, leveling up is represented by more things opening up in the game. It’s organic and I like it. Dishonored and Red Dead Redemption were kind of like that too.

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    1. duckofindeed says:

      Yeah, I pretty much thought of leveling up only in RPG’s, as well, but I suppose it happens in other kinds of games, too. I can’t really think of any games myself that have a more unique leveling system, but maybe that’s the whole point. It’s such a unique system, I don’t even think of it as leveling up.

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    2. Hatm0nster says:

      I really like the Skyrim system. It’s does more to encourage organic play than most others. However, it’s still very subject to grinding. I remember letting an enemy hack away at my shield in order to get my blocking skill up on numerous occasions. Also, smithing hundreds of daggers. 🙂

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  5. gimmgp says:

    In recent years, the concept of “leveling-up” has taken on a more sinister sort of tone. MMORPGs, mobile games, achievements- all of these systems seem to rely on the basic human desire for clear progress and growth through numbers (no matter how inconsequential) to keep people playing.

    Most action games have even come to rely on some sort of means to show progress through added weapons/abilities/skills that break down into just how much of the game have you completed. The new Tomb Raider is riddled with useless checklists and notifications that break immersion.

    I cannot think of a game that has a truly organic sort of progress system without some sort of menu or skill-tree to mark player progress. But I don’t think that is inherently wrong for game design. It all depends on the function of these systems. Most RPGs are based on the sort of hard math/chance systems of pen and paper games, so it makes sense to have player progress correlate to a “leveling-up” system.

    That being said, I would be very interested in playing an adventure game that had no menus, graphs, skill-trees, etc. Something like Journey or Shadow of the Colossus, but with a system where character development is organically affected by player progress and in-game actions.

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    1. duckofindeed says:

      Yeah, when it comes to RPG’s, it makes sense the way leveling up works in those games. But, in other games, I think it would be hard to have a leveling up system that makes a lot of sense. They can’t be super organic, as it is a game, not real life, and so things are going to have to be more structured and thus, less natural.

      And you’re right, people like to make “progress”, so that’s probably why those trophies and achievements were created. Even if they are meaningless, I guess it makes people feel like they are doing something.

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